Growing up in suburban Maryland, our lilac bush would bloom every spring, and my mom would take us outside to smell it,or cut the blooms and place them in a vase on the kitchen table. Scents and scenes from our childhood embed themselves deep in our brains and bodies—fresh oranges, roses, and less pleasant smells; perhaps your dog got too close to a skunk. Smells never to be forgotten.

During treatment, smell and taste and touch are all affected. Chemotherapy often makes everything taste like metal or cardboard. And well-meaning friends mention the magic of essential oils either as a cure or as a way to help with symptom management. Yes, aromatherapy is powerful, and it is even incorporated into care in some hospitals, but it comes with some possible negative effects as well, especially long-term.

Suppose you love the smell of lavender, and your friend gives you some to help you relax during treatment. Works like a charm until one day in treatment, you’ve just applied lavender and then you start feeling nauseous, and nothing helps for a few hours. Fast forward 6 months, you have successfully completed treatments, no evidence of disease (hooray) and you’re out at the mall. Passing by the Bath and Beauty shop, they have a sale going on for Lavender—soap. Bodywash, shampoo, essential oil, and the smell is wafting out the door. You suddenly feel nauseous again. And remember the Cancer Center. This scenario can happen with scents, with food, and sometimes even seeing someone you only knew at your cancer treatment center.

Does that mean you can’t use any aromatherapy? No, but here’s the deal: make sure you find an expert in aromatherapy, preferably with both aromatherapy and cancer treatment, and get that expert to create a special blend, just for you, for the time you are in treatment. A blend assures that you won’t be able to single out that scent after treatment, and a customized blend means it won’t be one that is commercially available from your natural health store, internet site, or friend who sells oils on the side. And when you finish, ditch that blend and have a different one made up. It might not help with aversions to foods, but it will certainly help with scents after treatment.

Why talk about aromatherapy with oncology massage? Because they are often used together, and massage therapists are frequently asked about other complementary therapies. Our goal is to help you be informed so you can make the best choices for your care.

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